The trip notice.
There is a feeling like a foreigner, and then there is feeling like a foreigner. So it goes. I learned this, not 12 hours after landing in Argentina. As well, I learned there is eating beef, and then there is eating beef. I learned a fair bit this trip, I must admit.
South America was not necessarily our first choice this year for our annual exotic trip. Truthfully, I was hoping for Africa, but a myriad of reasons kept us away from the Dark Continent. Last year we traveled throughout Iceland, and our checking account was still not completely replenished. And, well, the spiders. I will need a fair bit of therapy, or valium before I could co-exist peacefully with largish arachnids.
South America, specifically Argentina, came by way of a VIP FAM trip mail early one morning, care of Nancy, an Orbitz collegue. At that point, we were looking heavily at China. That is one long flight. This Patagonia trip, although not a stone's throw itself, piqued my interest.
I forwarded the mail to Marina, and received an instant message not one minute later. She was all capitals letters and exclamations, words like "TANGO" and "PATAGONIA!!" peppered the screen as quickly and she could hunt and peck. It would seem this was a likely avenue.
We were hoping, as usual, for a bit of anonymity when we first began the booking process. The trip, a pricey, yet discounted agent affair, was to hop around Argentina and Patagonia, supposedly requiring only a few brief hotel site inspections to justify the "fam" portion of the trip. It seemed a reasonable tradeoff. We got to travel to an exotic locale with accommodations and meals minded, and in turn we bartered a few hours of our trip to the hotels that would do their best to brand their names into our brains. The true value, though, was subjective.
August 30th. After 15 hours of travel, we step foot on Argentinean soil. Wearily we shuffle through a surprisingly brief customs check, and scan the colorful sea of people for a sign scrawled with our names. I couldn't help feeling a bit like royalty. Like tired, economy class traveling royalty.
We spot a man, standing rigid and professional, flaunting our names for all to see. Big, felt marker font. This feels so formal. He is dressed quite smartly, in a black fitted suit and white shirt with a high collar, open, that screamed fashionable. He was courteous and charming. Then, quickly efficient.
"Hello, Mark, Marina". He addressed us each individually. Handshakes, the whole nine yards.
"I am Flavio. From the agency."
I nodded. I missed his name. Fabio? Fa.....Damn. I lost it. I assumed a professional air, and, after what was probably a bit excessive duration, began:
"I'm sorry, what was your name?"
"Flavio" he repeated.
"Wait in this cafe, please". He motioned behind us to a few open tables.
"I have to greet our other agent, Wally. She will arrive in the next 45 minutes". His English is nearly perfect.
Other agent? Odd, there was supposed to be a group of 12 of us. I was a bit worried. Anonymity doesn't work in small groups.
The airport was smallish, and the food court cut like a diamond at sharp, rough angles through the concourse. The Godfather theme played prominently through the speakers. The place felt smoky, yet there was no smoking allowed. We sat, and seized our first chance to fumble out our Spanish. Dusting off our conjugations and friendly forms, we ordered water from our guinea pig waitress. We sat there, nursing it for 45 minutes while the crowd ebbed and flowed around us. She didn't seem to mind.
We would hear the Godfather several more times this trip. Mostly through mono-speakers, crackling and ancient. Once whispered in an elegant restaurant, a strange rendition with vocals. Once we heard it in the lobby of a 5 star hotel, plucked daintily by a harpist.
Lifestyle of the rich and/or corporate
There was a rush throughout Buenos Aires that first day. The three of us, exhausted from endless travel, held our heads barely propped up against the bus seat as we sped through the streets of Buenos Aires. Flavio would stare out, then back into the bus, always flowing with information. Important dates, tied to avenues. The pink house. Evita. Paint made of blood. Promiscous, prolific national figures. Our heads spun. He saw it and smirked.
We arrived at our first hotel sighting and Marina and I pretended to care. The staff was all fancy hotel jargon and stiff posture and ridiculous suits. It was information and business centers. For my clients, they reminded me. The hotel was so generic and committee designed that I couldn't help but careless about how many people the conference center could accommodate. Not contain, or hold, or seat. As if it was, itself, entertaining.
"Really? That many?" I fumbled.
I think she knew. There was probably a much better way to feign interest.
We kept moving, popping in an out of rooms. Junior suite. Double, Executive double. Single with Junior. Suites and sours. Flavio was still speaking throughout.. For every dry detail dropped by the hotel manager, he managed to somehow rope in an amusing anecdote.
We stared out the glass windows at the Rio Plata river. It was a murky brown water, as far as I could see.
"Is it always that color?" Wally had a nice bluntness about her.
Flavio gave a nice detailed answer that I can't recall. I was barely awake. Marina scattered about the spa and walkways snapping beautifully artistic photos of non hotel related items. Apples. Cropped scenes of mirrors. Macro shots of flowers. Unrelated to anything that would help a travel agent. The staff took it in stride.
Back on the road, our driver, a short Argentinean with high cheekbones and no English pulled into traffic. We heard a smack. Flavio and he shared a quick glance. He looked out the window at the violated car and gave a marginally warm smirk. The car accepted it, we continued on. Pedestrians be warned.
At this point, I began to feel a bit self conscious about my wardrobe. Usually, I take pride in the little value I place on my dress, and occasionally I enjoy looking as unprofessional as possible. Kind of a juvenile rebellion thing I still haven't shook. As we walked into our hotel for the third time though, I became self conscious.
We walk in through big heavy, opulent doors, opened synchronously by absurdly well-dressed, bilingual doormen. The floors are all marble: There is gold and glass everywhere and people seem aloof in that confident, maybe condescending way. Everyone looks like the after photograph.
There is poverty not too far from this place, and they are aware, it seems of class distinction. My societal theories, and conscientious sloven-try, even with all its well meaning philosophy, may be lost here. Our liaison from the local travel agency walks in, our evening dinner companion. He visibly eyes me up and down. He was not impressed. Should I bring up Dostoevsky at this point?
Flying (Plummeting) towards Ushuaia
There are many cultural differences above and beyond the surface ones that even the most deluded trust fund travel agent could surmise. The plane rides were laughably(terrifyingly?) anachronistic. After departing from Buenos Aires on Aerolineas Argentinas, it was amazing to watch the pilots flutter about in the cockpit. I thought the door was broken. Nope, all flights in South America were just as orgiastic. They just don't close the cockpit door. Fair enough. On the flight to Ushuaia, one of the pilots slipped into the bathroom for a spell. After a few minutes, he emerged. One of our companions, anxious for the duration, snapped up the empty stall. A few minutes later, she came back, laughing -
"Our pilot had a cigarette in the bathroom"
It was a turbulent flight, I wouldn't fault him.
The second day found us sleepily winding outside of the city proper towards a working Gaucho ranch. Buenos Aires was getting warm, and we kept shuttering the windows of the bus with colorful carpet overhangs. We all tried to nap. Even Flavio seemed a bit lazy this morning. Maybe a bit relaxed.
On arrival, we were showered with meats and wine in paper cups. It was a wildly sunny day on a dusty ranch. We stopped to watch the horses before our time came to ride. They seemed to suffer from mild narcolepsy.
I turned to Flavio:
"Are you going to ride with us?"
"No". He laughed.
"It would be boring for me"
In his accent, this didn't sound quite so blunt.
I believe the horses felt the same way.
Marina and I hopped up on our horses. They seemed taller than I remember horses to be. Maybe it's all the beef they eat. We struggled a bit, and our large hiking boots barely fit in the stirrups. We quickly noticed the missing saddle. This was almost bareback, only a couple of layers of cloth. I could live with this, as long as my horse stopped trying to bite my leg. I don't know what I did to him.
The gauchos here were a bright, friendly people, led by a rotund cherub, who seemed to enjoy his celebrity, and cashed in his political capital as flirtations with the women. He coughed out words, children smiling, looking like a leathered, dusty santa claus. He shook our hands with hands that felt like hiking boots.
Our fearless leader.
Flavio must have no free time to himself. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all trivia travel related, deftly weaving stories about Argentinean history, cross referenced with American parallels, always retaining a sense of humanity and humor that seemed nation-less. It was calming traveling with him. It became a running joke of the agents that he was known by everyone in the country. Everywhere we went people shook his hand, offered favors. His cell phone ring was obviously the James Bond theme.
Tango show #1
Nightime in Buenos Aires owes royalties to Paris. The narrow, cobbled avenues slice and snake the scenery in tight, European fashion. Stores stand shoulder to shoulder, sometimes a bit crooked, and sidewalks buck the less deft pedestrians. Our trip held two tango shows, a few days apart, and tonite we approached the Cafe de Angelicos with tredipation. Even Flavio was a foreigner here, as the building had only opened recently after being rehabed.
We swayed through the early Hollywood styled decor, in bold maroon and deep slick black, towards our perched table. The audience, mostly Argentinians and Brazillians were smart stylish and perfectly reserved. Whence the show began, an impeccable dervish of whirling dancers, the room feel silent. The wine never slowed for a bit. These dancers moved in ways that I wouldn't bother trying to describe.
The end of the world
They have a saying in Ushuaia -
"Disfruta, es el fin del mundo", meaning, enjoy it, its the end of the world. Actually, I dont know if its a saying or a slogan. I read it on a cocktail napkin.
Our local guide, Euginia, quipped another remark, through her long flowing black hair, covering one eye.
"Some people say this is the end of the world. We like to think of it as"
"As the beginning", chimed in our new companion, a vocal, opinionated woman never to be shy or aware.
"Yes, the beginning", Euginia added, deflated.
I felt bad. That was her moment, her expression. We knew what she was going to say, and dammit, let her say it. She lives at the end of the world.
Ushuaia is aptly known as the end of the world. This fact, we would find, would be played to great effect. Everything is the "last" something in the world. The last lighthouse, train, even golf course. The course, we objserved one early morning through fog, is a bit lacking, but hey, its the last in the world. While most cities look like they carved the earth to fit their needs, Ushuaui seems to accomodate the land around it. If Antartica ever colonizes, this place will have an awful lot of rebranding on its hands.
Over dinner on our first night in Ushuaia, after a long walk through the charming, chilly night, a waiter casually mentioned through translation that many locals had never seen an American. This came after he served us the best King Crab and Black Hake (found only locally and in New Zealand) that we had collectively tasted. I hoped we made a good impression. Our ridiculous scene of Benny Hill-esque translation while placing a order belied our true elegance. Really.
The town was muddy and sullen, stepped and foggy, looking like a remote port town should. It cowered in the shadow of the Andes, and it remained silent and still. There were odd pairings of modernist hotels and moveable log cabin homes, propped up on chopped wood so people could relocate as the government deemed needed. It was poor and booming, ancient and fledgling, grey and vibrant. Skiing was becoming.
The last train, or 'el tren de fin del mundo'
The train at the end of the world moves much slower than you may think. We kept moving, chilled, through a vast field peppered with long dead tree stumps left by the "pioneering prisoners". Up the mountains and into the National Reserve.
After a brief hike near a beautiful, still lake, we had to abort our travels due to a downed bus in the road ahead. I glanced over at our vessel and wondered the odds our bus might stumble as well.
The valley was still and cool. We walked up to the edge of the lake, a perfect echo of the Chilean and Argentinian Andes. Marina and I knelt near the water and dipped in our hands. It was cold, but a different kind of cold. Clean, fresh cold.
Eugenia and Vanessa stood behind us. Eugenia smiled:
"You can drink it. It is clean."
She waited, eagerly.
We glanced at each other. It was tempting, to be sure, but I wasn't that desperate. We held a bottle of mineral water in our hands.
Being a travel agent in a less traveled area is a bit like being a rock star. Everywhere we go, our entourage scurries ahead and consults with the staff, and soon we are embraced as family and showered with food and drink.
After our hike, we found ourselves engaging in another barbeque at Patagonia Mia, and again, the restaurant comped everything.
"Please, it is a gift from the restaurant" whispered the hostess, as she gently motioned my wallet away.
It was an absurd riches of beef and steak and sausages and lamb, and near the end I started to give up on breathing and focus on expanding my pants. By this point we had already been given wild statistics about how much beef Argentineans consume, and there was no hyperbole here.
In the airport
At the Buenos Aires airport, Flavio weaved us in and out of serpentine rows of still people. We made no eye contact. Soon, after chatting with an airline employee, a woman whisked from behind the counter and removed the velvet rope, paving a new line for us. We circumvented a good hour or two of line waiting. Also, we were being bumped up to first class.
Flavio, charming as usual, looked over his shoulder at us.
He grinned, "I don't like lines"
Neither do we.
Flying in Patagonia, specifically the Tierra del Fuego, is an unpleasant experinience. As we would learn from Cesar, our guide in Catafele, Patagonia is famous for it high winds. Secretly, I knew this.
As we approached Ushuaia, the plane slipped around in the air wildy. My Dramamine held furtive. I grabbed Marina's arm, sweat and all, and stared worriedly at our folding chair-esque plane seats. How old is this plane? It creaks, and the seat cloth is barely blue anymore through the mold and tears. We drop several feet abruptly. My stomach is higher at this point. Everyone breaks into applause when we finally land. I as well, am eternally grateful.
That night, we slept in our unfortunate separate beds. I awoke several times, in a full body sweat. Everyone in Patagonia seems to overcompensate wildly for the cold air outside, making the indoors unbearable. We opened our window, screen-less of course, and welcomed as much cool air as possible. Our hotel squatted at the top of a largish hill, and kept its distance from the occasional passing car. Silence.
Calafete is one of the most vexing and latent towns I have ever visited. It is a snake shedding its skin. It is small, yet modern and antiquated. Dogs run in packs like wild teenagers, weaving in and out of cars and people and streets and sidewalks in leaps and bounds. Marina was nervous, at first. Before long though, she seemed to pay as little mind to the dogs as they paid her. There are almost no paved roads here, yet many dirt paths lead to five star hotels. And horses walk the streets alongside children.
By day five, tensions were starting to rise. Our newest travel companion had managed to insult, offend, or isolate most everyone she came into contact with, and transitively, was making the lot of us look like jerks. We all did our best to co-exist, but any conversation had the potential to erupt. It kept us drinking much Quilmes, the obvious Argentinean beer.
As we crept across the dusty roads of Calafate, our Argentinean guides clearly sensed the latent mutiny. We began to tear through the hotel inspections, silent and beaten, while the staffs would look quizzically upon our erratic behavior. Occasionally they prodded us with standard questions, but the group at this point had lost most of the genial facade. It was mostly silence and half stretched smiles. This was a shame, as Calafate had some truly magnificent hotels, especially the Esperante, a beacon of modern design, with cavernous halls, shimmering glass ice sculptures, and arctic style.
So with our newfound angst, we separated for a stretch before our rote meat frenzy. I was beginning to loathe beef.
Ferry to Uruguay
We hopped on the ferry towards Uruguay at an unusually prompt 11:30 am. This trip was so welcome - unplanned and spontaneous, unlike the regimented past week. We knew nothing about this county, and it was nice. Refreshing.
Colonia, our port city of choice, was not a disappointment. It was asleep, without fanfare, when we all spilled out of the boat into the cobbled streets. At that point in the morning, the sun stretched a lovely orange tarp over all we could see. We quickly gained our bearings at a local tourist office and oriented ourselves towards the old town portion of the city.
This felt like what I had imagined Latin America to feel like. It was a time capsule in many ways. Streets wore cobblestone, with gaping gouges of bricks upturned and strewn in perfectly random fashion. The cars were all from eras bygone, cars that I couldn't imagine still functioned. Then there were misplaced tropical plants, silhouetted again smoky water, and buildings that seemed to have died ages ago and were now gently decomposing in public view.
The silence was profound. The river quietly touched the shoreline, and old American rock music played ever so lightly through dangling old speakers on many street corners. I had to remember that people lived here.
We walked up and down the streets, up narrow lighthouses with panoramas that made me dizzy, and through little trinket shops that seemed to sell whatever fell off a truck. Occasionally we stopped in little leather stores that sell amazing quality for amazing prices. Children played sports I didn't quite recognize. One field, or court, was hosting around fifteen teens playing what appeared to be a combination of basketball and soccer. I paused to take a few photos.
"Photo!" cried one of the larger boys.
All the players stop to look. Then, the crowd. Apparently I missed noticing the bleachers, where several more onlookers where enjoying the game. All necks crane towards us. I panic inside. Anxious awkwardness, quick, disarming smile. I know nothing about this country...Are the people friendly? Laughter erupts across the makeshift stadium. They now play a bit harder, perform. Innocent, like children. We smiled, but moved away a bit quicker than we had arrived.